Some Books of 2015

I read some books this year! Even though I’ve been always busy and/or tired (working full time, then going home even if your partner does most of the household and family maintenance is still tiring). But I read some books this year and some I want to share.

Fiction

Black Fire by Sonni Cooper. This is an old Star Trek book. I read it when I was in junior high. I remember loving it (like many girls my age I had a crush on Spock) and wanted a nostalgia re-read. This was a mistake because it did not hold up. The plot was just not believable. Oh well. Spock was still a hot pirate. So on to some good books!

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey and sequels (Kushiel’s Chosen and Kushiel’s Legacy). Kushiel’s Dart is one of those fantasy novels that I’ve walked past on fantasy shelves for a decade or more. I finally read it this year and enjoyed it! To be honest I’d probably avoided it because I thought it was just erotica set in a fantasy universe. And while there’s erotica (of a somewhat BDSM variety), there’s also a standard fantasy romp of saving the kingdom with the saving being done by a woman using intelligence and influence (rather than some men being violent). The second two books aren’t as great, but like is often the case, it’s hard not to read them because I liked many of the characters.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin and sequels (The Broken Kingdoms and The Kingdom of Gods). I am not usually a fan of stories told from the point of view of a character whose an unreliable narrator which is how the first one reads. But I enjoyed it so much I think I read it over about two days (work days even, so mostly really late at night). The main character is an outcast daughter called “home” to the center of power of a fantasy world. That central power is maintained because they literally control the powers of a captive god. It honestly wasn’t clear to me to start that there were literally gods in this universe. If you told me that the book was about what it is about, I’d probably not want to pick it up. How can you make literal gods mixing among humans a good read (never mind Greek stories)? But she did.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. I’ve read nearly everything by Stephenson, usually multiple times. Seveneves was another book I read really fast. It is however a very mixed book. The world-building in the final section is awesome (albeit with a flawed premise). The “present day” story is painful and sad and amazing. I wouldn’t rank it his best book, but it’s one I re-read parts of almost immediately after finishing it.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu). I can’t really say what this book is about without giving away something but the fundamental sci-fi story was definitely in a tradition that I enjoy. The best aspect of this book for me, though, was a reminder that American (and British) scifi has a lot of cultural assumptions going on that I don’t even notice. Since this was written in Chinese, rooted in Chinese modern history, there are very different cultural assumptions (which the translator footnoted in many cases). So not only did I get a good scifi story, I got to learn a few bits here and there about modern Chinese history that I didn’t know (or hadn’t really understood the importance of).

Bloodchild and other stories by Octavia Butler. Patternmaster by Octavia Butler and related books (Mind of my Mind and Clay’s Ark). After a panel at GeekGirlCon about Butler and her influence, I finally read the Patternmaster books (which I’ve known about for some time but hadn’t read). They are honestly very “mixed” books, but all have all these ideas (about emotions and human relations) that I can see why these books are well liked even if Parable of the Sower is, to me, a far better book. The short story collection I got primarily for the story “Speech Sounds”. I still think about it (which is what the panelist who recommended it said). But every story in the collection had some gem of an idea or a character (or both) that stuck with me.

Non-fiction

Normally I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. That I read so much fiction this year is strange (and the above isn’t even every book). But I did tackle some pretty heavy books this year, starting out with still reading Reconstruction by Eric Foner which I still haven’t finished. I’d started it after finishing Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson last year. But I found Reconstruction extremely slow going and hard to “stay into” so I’ve been reading it off and on all year. But here are some non-fiction books that I’ve finished this year that are interesting or otherwise ones I recommend.

I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds on the recommendation of a coworker when I asked him for advice about giving a talk. I’m sure there are other books giving similar advice, but this is the one I followed. I ended up giving a really great talk at an internal work conference. (Or everyone says it was great — I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the recording even if I could have an honest assessment about it.)

The short ebook The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong is about spam and abuse and harassment and why the internet has so much of it and why it’s hard to control. If you keep up on those topics, it might not be anything incredibly new to you, but her presentation is entertaining.

When Cate Huston hosted a “ladies and lasers” event at Glowforge, I already knew about Dan Shapiro’s book The Hot Seat: The Startup CEO Guidebook because Cate had recommended it a bunch. I’d started reading the ebook and then Dan’s folks made sure I got a copy of it in print. I had left Grace Hopper Celebration thinking I might (maybe) one day start my own company. By the end of reading it, I was reconsidering that idea, though I did think the process was de-mystified a bit. Also I felt like I finally understood capitalism and modern “venture capital” in tech (I was then disabused of the idea that I understood it within a month.)

I believe I decided to read What Works for Women at Work by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey because of something Leigh Honeywell said sometime. I found it depressing and inspiring and it confirmed or solidified many things I already knew (or thought I knew) about women and the workplace. It was a particularly good reminder of how hard it is for women to support each other — the patriarchy is encouraging us to tear each other down, yo! — but that we should support each other anyway.

I read a lot of history this year (I usually read a lot of history). The more distant history included a book of short essays, Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard and SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, also by Beard. The former made me think of the kind of articles I’d expect in any number of publications and combined discussions of a historical event, artifacts, how history is thought about, etc. with a defense of “classics” as a discipline. While nothing stands out (I have no awesome anecdote from it), it did remind me how much I love the idea that we re-interpret history and the re-interpretation matters in itself. History (and classics) as a discipline matter not because it’s important (necessarily) to know exactly what happened in year 212 but rather the process by which we understand it and what we take out of it informs ideas we have and choices we make now. It’s an idea that I was exposed to in high school and one reason I tend to read a lot of history books. It’s nice to read a book defending the idea that classics matter and why (plus I did study Latin in college and like to cheer for my team). SPQR is a more integrated work (not surprisingly) and was just excellent. I’ve read a lot of scattered parts of Roman history (including some, obviously, actually in Latin). However, most histories I’ve read focused more on particular periods, e.g. the Julio-Claudians, without putting it into the larger context of Roman expansion into Italy and beyond. How did that happen? Why there? Why then? What conflicts existed within Roman society that helped drive (or prevent) that expansion? If you’ve never read an integrated history of Rome, this one is a pretty good one as it tries to tie the ideas and ideologies together with the people. Plus, unlike many histories she tries to talk about people who aren’t in power as much as we can given what records remain. That said, I know a fair bit of Roman history and I tended to look things up in Wikipedia a lot, especially in periods I wasn’t as familiar with (Kindle X-Ray for Books also came in handy).

The next history I read was A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. This got on the reading list on the recommendation of Ta-Nehisi Coates. While I do know a bit about the period (though more about the periods just before and just after) what I do know is fairly broken up. A story about some king here or battle over there. The Hundred Years War (a big part of this period) is not an event I understood as a thing. I mean sure a war between France and England since France and England shared lots of family in their nobility and kings die without strong heirs, etc. But not how did it all go together? Plus I really had no feeling for what it was actually like to live then. How did nobles make money? How far along was non-feudal organization really going? Parts of this book was slow going, but some was just utterly entrancing. Also one reason why the 14th century sucked? The people in charge were often basically teenage boys with swords, servants, and too much booze.

These last two are hard. One is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. There’s not a lot I can say about this that would improve upon anything anyone else has said. I read it because a lot of what TNC has written has moved me to read other things (and do and think in different ways). I’m still not sure how it will affect me long term. The last book I want to talk about is The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. If there’s any book here that I would want my (American) friends to read it would be this one. It is a history of slavery in the United States. But to say it that way is to reduce it, I think, to just another book detailing how awful slavery was. And while it is that, it’s importance to me is that it makes it clear just how much wealth and power that we have now is built on slavery even in the North which we pretend was “different”. That which was built did not disappear in 1865. And there was just so much that was built on the bodies and minds and lives of black men and women. That we still haven’t repaid and may never repay, if it’s even possible. The debt has compounded a long time. Americans like to pretend slavery was a long time ago and ended and that it has almost as little bearing on the present as the emperors of Rome. Baptist’s book makes it clear that too much has been swept under a rug for that to be true.

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